Our time in the Tuamotus, for me, was educational. We were fortunate to be able to learn a few necessary lessons under more-or-less non-hazardous conditions.
The Tuamotus Archipelago is constituted of a hundred or so atolls – raised barrier reefs in a ring-shape with a lagoon in the middle. Some of the atolls are large (the average is about 20 miles by 9 miles) and have a pass through the reef that is wide and deep enough to allow the passage of a yacht. Wicked currents generally tear through these passes, and they are difficult to predict due to the sparsity of tide stations and the complexity of other influencing factors, such as the strength and direction of the winds, how long they have been blowing, the phase of the moon, the prevailing swell direction due to something that might have happened last week a thousand miles away and whether or not Neptune has woken up on the wrong side of the bed with a hangover. In a worst-case scenario a strong current opposes a large swell. This sets up large, steep standing waves which are hazardous enough to broach a large yacht. We read one account of a 60-something-foot yacht which had their cockpit filled twice while negotiating the pass at Hao. In our case, a slight misjudgment on my part led to a bumpy ride out of Hao but nothing dangerous. Lesson learned.
Another lesson was learned when we were caught out on the lee side of Amanu lagoon when the wind picked up to an un-forecast 25 knots. The fetch across the lagoon was 5 miles, which was sufficient to produce some sizable chop. To make matters worse, anchoring inside the lagoons of the Tuamotus usually involves anchoring amidst towering coral heads which snag and entangle your anchor chain. This was the case with us; the rocks had entangled the first 150-feet of our 300-foot scope. The only reason the other 150-feet wasn’t tangled up too is that we had by this point learned to suspend the last hundred feet or so of chain with buoys (if any sailors out there want to know more about this technique let me know and I’ll write a bit more). This helps to protect the coral as well as guaranteeing that you you will always have some scope, and the buoys help to absorb some of the shock loading, in conjunction with a good, long, stretchy snubber line. We spent about 12 hours anchored like this, unable to raise our anchor due to entanglement, unable to let out any more scope because we had it all out already (the water depth was 80′) and with Bob’s bow occasionally burying in the waves. No harm done. We’re ready to head back down there in a couple of months and begin our Tuamotus exploration much better equipped than we might have been.
The passage back North to Marquesas was good, though we were close reaching or close-hauled for all bar the last 6 hours of it. We also encountered violent squalls, but were able to see them coming in advance and shorten sail accordingly. We pulled in to Taiohae Bay, on the South Coast of Huku Hiva, at 9pm local time on December 31st. It was a very dark night as we came in. We dropped anchor behind a catamaran that we could just make out by the glow of her decks as they shone by the light of her mast-head anchor light. I had a rum, Sarah had a glass of wine (well, maybe more than one) and we turned in for a much-needed sleep.
The following morning we discovered that the catamaran anchored next to us was none other than our very good friends aboard El Nido, whom we had last seen in the Gambier Islands. Olivia and David are cruising with their two daughters, Gaya and Kali, who are 5 and 7 years old respectively. We had shared many wonderful days with them in the Gambier Islands and were exceptionally pleased to see them again. One month later, the vein of those wonderful days has continued, and we have come to regard the whole family as very special friends.
I think many people would be surprised to learn of the number of cruisers who are travelling as a family. Home-schooling means that the children do not miss out on their education in the slightest. Quite the opposite in fact – the opportunity for them meet so many children from different cultures, backgrounds and economic situations adds hugely to their personal development, and makes for incredibly well-rounded, precocious children who, in my opinion, get a head-start in life compared to the vast majority of their peers. Very few boats have teenagers on board because their requirements are somewhat different, but children in the age range of between about 2 and 11 seem to be well-suited to a cruising lifestyle. At least, that seems to be the case based on the families that we have met thus far.
We haven’t budged in a month now, and a very productive and enjoyable month it has been. Sarah has been working diligently on a statistical data analysis for the Charles Darwin Institute in Galapagos, and I have spent the time making small improvements and doing routine maintenance to Bob. We’ve been pretty shoddy tourists to be honest and have rarely ventured far beyond the shops near to the quay, instead spending our leisure time with fellow cruisers. The one exception to this was a day spent driving all over the island in a rented car. This is an incredibly beautiful place, and Sarah has some stunning landscape pictures to prove it. I’m sure they’ll be making an appearance in her next blog installment. In the meantime I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it and make do with wading through my comparatively drab text 🙂
Our anchor chain has a wealth of growth on it from being submerged in the water column for so long. Sarah has finished her statistical paper, and I have finished my project (more in the next blog post about this). We’re tentatively booked to haul Bob out for a bottom job in Hiva Oa in about two weeks and would like to make a stop in Ua Huka before then, so we’re planning on raising anchor at some time in the next few days and going for a sail. We’re looking forward to it.
I’d like to start by wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope everyone had a wonderful time over the festive season and celebrated well with lots of tasty food, booze and presents.
Our last blog post was quite some time ago now – it was the beginning of November and we had just made it to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands to pick up Charline, my French friend who is currently living in the UK. We had a fun-filled and action packed six weeks with her, visiting various islands in the Marquesas group before heading out to sea again to visit the Tuamotus. We made it to the island of Hao, where Charline flew back home on the 14th December. Since then we’ve been waiting for a weather window to head back to the Marquesas Islands. We were hoping to make it back for Christmas, but alas, the weather gods did not work in our favour. The best we could do was to head 20 miles further north to another atoll called Amanu, at least it was 20 miles closer to our final destination. It was here where Alex and I spent a wonderful Christmas Day together, and much to our delight, Santa even gifted us with a superb weather window to leave on Boxing Day. So now we’re once again at sea, about 300 miles from Marquesas and going as fast as we can in the hope of making it there for New Years Eve.
The busyness of Charline’s visit, coupled with the fact that we had absolutely no internet access in the two islands we’ve visited in the Tuamotus, has meant our blog efforts have been a bit lacking. I promise we’ll make it up to you soon and once we are in the Marquesas again with internet, I’ll write another blog with photos and the whole story of Charline’s visit.
I must admit that I’ve found it difficult to get into the Christmas spirit here in the tropics. The weather is hot and humid, with clear blue skies and a raging sun. Not at all like the cold crisp air of England at this time of year. Even though most English Christmas’s are cold, wet and gray – at least we can hope for a spattering of snow to get us in the Christmas spirit. There’s certainly no possibility of that here! The people in French Polynesia are not at all materialistic, so there are no Christmas lights, tinsel or decorated trees anywhere to be found. The combined number of shops in Hao and Amanu total only 4, in them were a few children’s toys for sale and some Christmas chocolates, but that was the only visible evidence that it was Christmastime.
This is in fact the second time Alex and I have spent Christmas together. The first time was in 2008; we had set sail from Bermuda to Grenada to spend the winter island hopping around the Caribbean. We left Bermuda on the 20th December and hit really heavy weather a few days into our voyage. There were four of us onboard at the time, myself and Shannon (who were complete sailing newbie’s), Shannon’s boyfriend Scott, and Alex. The helm had to be manned at all times – this was a time before Bob was kitted out with a wind vane and autopilot. After two full days of terrible weather and getting no more than an hour of sleep at a time, we decided to deploy a drogue in an attempt to leave the boat unmanned for the night so we could all get some rest. This was on Christmas Eve and it was my job to get up every 30 minutes during the night to check that everything was okay with the drogue. I woke up on Christmas day with the usual seasickness and absolutely shattered, and the morning was spent arguing between the crew mates about whether or not we should divert course to Mexico to avoid more bad weather. Shannon and I had managed to sneak stockings onboard with some small gifts for everyone, but despite this, I generally think of that year as the ‘year I skipped Christmas’. So, really, this year is the first ‘proper’ Christmas Alex and I have spent together, and I wanted to make it a good one!
Looking back and remembering my last Christmas at sea, I was secretly (or perhaps not so secretly, I’m sure Alex would say I was an open book in this respect) incredibly relieved that we didn’t get a weather window back to Marquesas until after the 25th. I really really really did not want to be at sea for another Christmas! Even if that meant spending a bit longer in an area closer to the cyclone belt and more prone to bad weather conditions. A few days before Christmas we spent a sleepless night anchored in a strong breeze, and even though the lagoon is well protected by reefs, the seas were very choppy and uncomfortable and there was no protection at all from the wind. Although this was less than ideal, no damage was done and I got my wish of a fun and non-seafaring Christmas on Amanu.
We went to the church service on Christmas Eve and were treated to a wonderful array of songs that the Polynesians sing absolutely perfectly. I’m not religious, in fact I often feel like a fraud when I go to church services (which admittedly is very rarely). Celebrating Christmas is probably not something I should be concerned with, but there are so many aspects of it that I really enjoy, so I do anyway. The locals in Amanu were very friendly and did their best to make us feel welcome, despite the language barrier and despite me feeling like I really didn’t belong in that church! It was a lovely evening and nice to see how the locals celebrate this time of year.
We started Christmas morning with a breakfast of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and Prosecco. This was a massive treat for us given that the prices of things like these here are astronomical. I had also put together a little Christmas treasure hunt for Alex and hidden some small presents in different parts of the boat and set up a number of games and puzzles he needed to solve before he could find the next one. It was a lot of fun watching him and I hope he enjoyed it as much as I did. It took quite a while to set up and I had to do it in stages the few times Alex went to shore without me. One time in particular, Alex came back to the boat much sooner than anticipated as the shop on shore was closed. I had wrapping paper and presents all over the berth, little pieces of pre-cut Sellotape ready for wrapping and Christmas songs loading onto a USB stick from the laptop. I had about 30 seconds whilst Alex tied up the dinghy to shove everything into my already overflowing bedside cupboard and hide the song transfers on my laptop. Somehow I got away with it and the treasure hunt remained a surprise until Christmas Day.
Anytime I’ve spoken to Alex about Christmas he always seems to want to boycott it. This year we put on some festive tunes and I even got him to wear a Santa hat to make it a truly festive treasure hunt. Amazingly, he seemed to get into the spirit of things!
Alex gave me a beautiful new swim suit which I’d been looking for for a while as most of my others have been degraded by the sun. It was a lovely surprise; I really didn’t think he’d get me anything given the lack of choice in the 4 shops we’d recently had access to. We also went for a Christmas snorkel and Alex successfully used our new spear gun to catch us a fish.
We also had our very own Christmas tree on Bob – a Casuarina decorated with different coloured ropes and balls of aluminium foil. Casuarina is a group of conifer species that are very lanky in structure and some species are highly invasive. We therefore gave him the name ‘Skeletor’ – being very skeletal in structure and trying to take over the world. We wanted to make sure he didn’t succeed in invading other places, so unfortunately he didn’t stay onboard with us for very long.
Finally, we sat down to a meal of roast duck, roast potatoes and carrots, homemade stuffing and some other vegetables. The day turned out way more Christmassy and familiar than I had expected and although I miss my family and friends enormously, it was a fantastic day nonetheless.